Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Brief Encounter: Five Favourites

Many of the greatest romantic movies of our times are about brief encounters. People meet and fall in love. And then their love is punctuated, or even ends, because of fate, chance, or in some cases, choice. What is it about a brief encounter that is so magnetic? Is it the sense of buoyancy it provides, both to its characters and the viewer? Or is it the futility of it? A cynic would say that its appeal lies in its romanticised view of love; or its convenient sidestepping of what happens proverbially on the morning after. But, for me, and I guess any romantic, it is the possibility, the mere chance that one could stumble upon a beautiful romance at a place and time when one least expects it; on a train to Vienna, in the middle of a War, or on an unsinkable ship. It is the promise that such a premise holds that enchants us. We want to believe in such a romance.  We want it to take us by surprise. A life is made up of countless brief encounters and we hope one of them amounts to something. more. It is for this reason that the Brief Encounter is my favourite sub-genre within Romance. There are several films about brief encounters. Here are my five favourites:

Brief Encounter: Probably the most iconic film in this sub-genre, Brief Encounter was a British film way back in 1945 about two married people, Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) who fall in love over a series of brief encounters. Directed by David Lean, who would later go on to make epics like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, it is a quiet subtle film about an unconsummated affair. What sets it apart from most films is its time setting. Set in a time of propriety where a friendship between two married people was enough to attract suspicion, Brief Encounter may seem too outdated to many. However, it’s a great film of love and the moral conundrums it puts people in. It is also a powerful reflection of the times when brief encounters were commonplace and, as Frances Gray argued, the upper class could be silly, the working class vulgar but the middle class at the time considered itself as the moral backbone of the society. The intensity of their romance is in their words and expressions. It is a film frozen in time and is very worthy of appreciation as such.

Casablanca: When one sees Casablanca, it is hard to believe that neither Ingrid Bergman nor Humphrey Bogart or Paul Heinreid wanted to be part of this film. Undoubtedly one of the greatest films of all time, in any genre, it is the tale of Rick (Humphrey Bogart) who runs a café in Casablanca, a gateway for Europeans on the run to America. One day, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks into the café (and his life) with her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Heinreid), a Czech revolutionary on the run from the Germans. She and Rick were having an affair in Paris when the Germans invaded and she left him without reasons. Now, passions reignite and Rick finds himself in a unique position as the only person who can secure an exit visa for Ilsa and Victor to the United States. Casablanca is a stunning film in every way. It is intimate and yet, has an epic feel. It has one of the finest scripts ever written embellished with unforgettable lines. The actors leave a lasting impact in their respective roles. It keeps us guessing about their fate just as the writers kept Ingrid Bergman guessing about her characters' till the very end. It is a timely romance, and yet, a timeless one; one that underscores the universal themes of love, loyalty and heroism.

The Bridges of Madison County: Clint Eastwood is perhaps the most versatile director of our time. Adapting Robert James Waller’s novel of the same name, Eastwood plays Nat Geo photographer Robert Kincaid who gets into a heated affair with Francesca (Meryl Streep), an Italian war bride with a quiet existence as a Midwestern housewife and mother. After a passionate week, they are hopelessly in love and Francesca faces a difficult choice between her love for Robert and her responsibility to her family. What could have been pure soap opera is elevated by Clint Eastwood to one of the most deeply resonant romances of the 1990s. It may be too slow and dull for some. However, few films are as emotionally rich and move beyond the spoken word to find meaning in body language, gestures and silent glances. This is one of those. Meryl Streep gives one of the most delicate and controlled performances of her highly illustrious career. For the patient viewer, this is one of the most rewarding romances ever.

Before Sunrise / Sunset: What can I say about this film that I haven’t already said before? One is a delightful fairytale and the other is painfully real. Both are about the brief encounters of two people, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). First, they meet in Vienna in their early 20s and spend a night together walking around the city getting to know each other. They part at the station with promises to continue their relationship. 10 years later, (in Before Sunset) they meet once again, in Paris and the viewer learns of what happened between them and what could have been. The greatest source of the enduring appeal of these films is the writing. Never has conversation been more engrossing or attractive. On listening, one will quickly find him/herself immersed in these characters and as the film progresses; it is hard not to fall in love with them. Like I said in a previous post, this tale of chance meetings is a modern day fairy tale romance that achieves something rare: it not only makes us long for such a romance but actually almost convinces us that it is possible. While it may be too talky for the half-brained, for me, it is not only a stunning romance, but also, in my humble opinion, the greatest of our times.

Once: Another favourite of mine that has been discussed before, Once is a very unique musical in that it has that rare feature of mixing a quiet story and some soulful music into a surprisingly powerful whole. One of the biggest surprises of 2007, Once is a story of a musician (Glen Hansard) in Dublin meeting a rose seller and piano player (Marketa Irglova) and together they embark on a journey collaborating on recording an album. She is married with a child and he is hopelessly in love with her. A bittersweet romance, it is that rare musical that is personal, intimate, raw and therefore, a highly effective depiction of a brief encounter. The music contributes immensely to character development. The emotions are real, the people even more so and all this is beautifully encapsulated in the moment where the two sit at a piano and begin their musical relationship together.

Of course, there are several other great films in the sub-genre: Roman Holiday, Titanic, Kisses, Harold and Maude, In Search of a Midnight Kiss, Brokeback Mountain, It Happened One Night and others. But these are my favourite films about the sub-genre in romance, the brief encounter.

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